Saturday, March 03, 2007

Spirit and Flesh
Aching for Absolutes

Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church, by James M. Ault Jr.

This is an intelligent, thoughtful -- almost sweet -- account of a culture completely foreign to me. Sociologist and documentarian James Ault ventured among the Moral Majoritarians and came to love them without entirely losing his critical faculties. The product is fascinating. Probably necessarily, it is also a little too willing to jump over lightly the damage wrought by Ault's charming protagonists. (I'll take up the damage in a Part 2 of this post.)

The book is a period piece, firmly anchored in a particular place and time. Ault has protected individual identities, but he makes it clear that his story, and it is a story, takes place in the mid-1980s in a small rust belt city, culturally far more Catholic than Protestant. Ault's Shawmut River church existed in a very particular class milieu, a white working class of independent, skilled and semi-skilled, construction and mechanical tradesmen and their wives. These men aren't factory workers; the mills were going or long gone. Construction unions were for jobs bigger than they ever got a chance at. They were also not just dumb, beefy laborers -- they knew how buildings and vehicles worked and were proud of their knowledge. Today, if their city is like most of the United States, they and their sons have either risen to management/ownership of developer companies or been driven out of the construction trades by the arrival of hungry immigrants who'll work for less and expect little respect. In the 1980s, their wives only worked outside the home if prompted by absolute necessity. Since then, necessity has become almost universal; families of the sort described here only keep their place on the class ladder by combining two incomes.

Ault shows (not tells) that "churches like Shawmut River ... help members deal with basic problems in family and personal life by following guidelines found in [their reading of] scripture." That is, like most of us, these folks want clearer answers to how they should live. The answers they find in fundamentalism fit their experience; their social conservatism, their authoritarian streak --even when diluted in real life by very quite obstreperous individualism -- seems to predate their "born again" conversions.

For these folks, everything depends on family ties. Everything. Their marriages certainly. Their child care arrangements which depend on multi-generational networks of women relatives. Their housing, as grown children do not even expect to leave their parents' homes. Their social safety net, as family is the only reliable source of assistance in time of trouble. Their social net, as family is where folks, relax, meet, and eat together. Their location to express their generosity and goodness, as family circumscribes who they know and who they love. Their churches which tend to consist of extended families.

They read the Bible to make family life work and they ask their leaders to interpret it when their own reading falters, as it frequently does.

"When we received Christ," Phil added, "all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems, the preacher was right there to give us answers. He would open up God's word and say 'Okay, here's what God has for you.'"

Ault is particularly wonderful at enabling us to understand and feel how accepting that "Jesus died for me personally" enables fundamentalist individuals to rescue marriages that were going nowhere. These are folks who live in a homosocial world; men and women are pretty much separate species, drawn together first by lust (sexual desire is assumed to fade quickly) and then by family responsibility. But they don't really know each other or expect to spend any time with each other.

[Pastor] Frank Valenti's preaching on marriage must be understood in the context of the kind of marriages and families his congregation knew and took for granted. ..."We like to do things away from our wives," Frank admitted matter-of-factly to the men in his flock....

"Frank's affections were at the garage, " [his wife] Sharon had said of the early years of their marriage, "and mine were with the children." Between such different beings, communication and trust, let alone intimacy, were not easy. In this context, the claim "you can understand your husband" or "you can figure women out," ... was not self-evident.

Conversion and immersion in fundamentalist churches enabled these women and men to get to know each other.

"It was a progressive thing," [Frank Valenti explained.] "It didn't happen just all at once, clunk! Sharon and I stared going to church together and reading the Bible together ... we had a channel opened up to us that was never open before. We had a channel opened up to God. If you didn't know how to live, the answers were always there."

Though their reading of the Bible led to an insistence that the husband should have the final say in a marriage, the women Ault spent so much time with were neither passive nor dominated. In fact they exercised a great deal of unacknowledged power within their familial and church world. Paradoxically, their fundamentalist faith enabled them to span the chasm they experienced between men and women.

As Sally Keener described the early years of her marriage to Dave, "I just did what I wanted when I wanted. I ran all the household money and the budget. I would never consider asking Dave to do anything. Good Heavens!" ... [Independence] meant, as Sally put it, to be "totally domineering" or, as Sharon put it, simply to "do what I want." ...Within the kind of marriages women of Shawmut River knew, feminist independence seem fruitless, if not regressive. It served to legitimize men's unbridled detachment from family responsibilities and promised no end of the relentless conflict and chaos in marriages bridging men's and women's wildly separate worlds.

This is another world from mine -- though I'd be overstating my case if I left the impression that I think all, or even most, of contemporary couples' communication difficulties derive from homosociality. A wise friend who practices couples counseling for lesbians once told me: "I spend my days introducing women to each other who have been living together for five years." Authentic satisfying interactions are hard for all of us. It would be so much easier if there were a ready made structure in which to contain their vagaries. Fundamentalists want absolutes and they have chosen their structure: God, via the pastor's scriptural preaching, provides all they need to know.

James Ault's fundamentalist friends find a species of peace in their absolutes. Their belief system makes their lives better, as they are more than eager to testify. Ault makes them humanly understandable: this is a good book that deserves a serious read.

Since fundamentalists' leaders use the trust of their followers in ways that I believe undermine our society's potential for good, my next post will look at a few tidbits in Ault's volume that point out some problems created by having 15-20 percent of U.S. people immersed in this kind of God seeking. But like Ault, I couldn't dislike these folks; unlike Ault, I don't think much good would come of my meeting them.


Jane Redmont said...

Thanks, Jan. I just got the book a few months ago and it has been sitting on a shelf in my office waiting to be read. It will have to wait a bit more (I'm away from home and about to enter a week of quiet) but I'm delighted to have this introduction and your reflections.

Melinda said...

I've just finished reading this book for a sociology of religion class (taught by a female anglican priest), and I'm curious to read your next post about it!
I'm in the middle of writing a paper on the book right now, so I should get back to it.


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